Smile Politely

A gold standard of wind band music

As a student of music here, I’m required to go to my fair share of concerts at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to support my fellow students and to enjoy a bunch of music that I probably would have to pay $50 to hear if I wanted to travel up to Chicago. While this is sometimes a hassle to plan around, I ultimately like going to these concerts, and not because of the good brownies at Intermezzo or the cute flute player in front. A lot of the time these concerts have genuine moments of inspiration, or impressive talent, or just plain fun. I mean, I enjoy Grizzly Bear a lot, but listening to them isn’t as much “toe tapping music” as a Percy Grainger march is, and I think you have to have both in your life. I always find it a shame, then, that most of this community overlooks these student concerts, which are full of this weird, young energy that is lacking in regular Joshua Bell programming over at Krannert.

Take, for instance, the Wind Symphony concert that was held this past week, led by the great Dr. Robert Rumbelow. I have a feeling that even those that don’t “understand” the music (which is a saying I’ve always hated) would, overall, enjoy the concert, even if they didn’t want to listen to it on their iPod. There’s something fresh about the music, and the way our top wind band presents it is rarely grating.

For starters, when you think of orchestral or classical music, you think of composers that have been dead for at least a century. This is usually not recommended advertising practice. But on the Wind Symphony concert, only two of the composers were actually dead and both of them (Grainger and John Philip Sousa) are the gold standard of wind band music. One of these pieces, the opener of Alfred Cohen’s “Gabrielli Infusions,” was actually a world premiere. How often do you see that? Even if you like the most obscure indie band like Matthew and Mary, they have probably already performed most, if not all, of their songs before in some garage for a group of friends. So to actually listen to music that is, quite literally, hot off the presses, and good music at that, is quite an experience.

If there was a theme to this concert, it was “sound combinations you probably hadn’t come up with yet.” The Alfred Cohen’s work is a fine example of this, beginning with an old Italian medieval motet by the 16th century composer Giovanni Gabrielli and mixing it through almost every combination of instruments that one could imagine, all in short intervals. The second piece, “Passage” by Scott Lindroth, sounded quite similar, with a series of developments and transformations leading to a sort of melancholy anticlimax. New music tends to go hard or go home in its formal structure, and while I didn’t really enjoy the way this one went, I at least appreciated the effort, as well as the way the Wind Symphony played it.

One thing that should be noted about these concerts is that the Wind Symphony usually always plays it to near-perfection. This town has had a strong band program since A.A. Harding started the band officially in 1905, and has maintained that strong program to this day. So much so, in fact, that Sousa himself willed almost all of his personal belongings to this university and the band program; the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music now sits on the second floor of the A.A. Harding Band Building as a result, right above where the Wind Symphony rehearses. This band program has had a long time to work its way to the top standard, and from what I can tell they have no intention of climbing down any time soon.

This idea of the past hung over the concert repeatedly, especially with the “Lads of Wamphray March” by Percy Grainger. Almost anything Grainger wrote for wind band is a standard for wind band, and although it sounds distinctly British and old, it makes no sense to me for that tradition to not continue. But the main aspect of the concert, perhaps unfairly overshadowing the piece finely done with the Jupiter String Quartet, was the return of James Keane, past leader of the U of I bands for 25 years.

Keane was the fourth leader of bands in the history of the band program here; Harding, Mark Hindsley, and Harry Begian managed to keep the band program up and running for over eighty years before Keane joined. Fittingly enough, the piece he came to conduct was “Bells for Stokowski,” Michael Daughtry’s tribute to one of the craziest conductors known to mankind and the man who spearheaded Disney’s Fantasia. The entire notion of an old favorite playing a tribute to an old favorite made Foellinger Great Hall all warm and nostalgic, and from beat one that feeling was well served. The absolute amount of control that Keane had over what sounded to be a very difficult piece to play was nothing short of spectacular. That piece and the encore (naturally, Sousa’s University of Illinois March) gave me hope in the music that these good people would continue to create in the future.

My recommendation to you, therefore, is to support said music. For ten bucks and two hours you can support that cute girl in the front and listen to some new — sometimes brand new — music. Alternatively, the U of I Symphony Orchestra led by Donald Schleicher offers a mix of both modern art music and old Classical standards, and they too are fantastic. There are also many other groups and bands and orchestras too innumerable to mention, but my point is this: even if you don’t think you’ll like it, it’s something different. It comes from the collective minds of goofy college students, and it’s right in your back yard. Who knows? You might have fun.

Related Articles